Exit West by Moshin Hamid

Nadia and Saeed, young lovers (ish) in a war-torn city — their relationship is the heart of the book. It has a conceit, doors that open to other cities around the world, where they emerge as refugees, and a vaguely dystopian political angle with fierce nativism in the places where the doors lead. But the relationship is where the book’s power is, and I almost found the other stuff distracting. Beautifully written, though.

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

What a strange little book. Helen Moran returns home to investigate the suicide of her “adoptive” brother, and stays with her strange parents, whom she is careful always also to refer to as “adoptive.” She seems completely devoid of emotion00motivated only by curiosity–but it doesn’t really work as a mystery. There’s no real directed investigation or satisfying resolution. There’s obviously something intentionally off about Helen as a character–the dead brother might have the best read on her when he hypothesizes that she’s manic depressive or schizophrenic–but there’s never really an emotional depth. It’s just plain strange. Funny, but strange.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

It seems like it’s going to be a coming of age novel–naive daughter of immigrants goes off to Harvard–but it turns out not to be. Instead it just seems like Selin’s naïveté endures. I haven’t read the Dostoevsky so I’m sure there’s a whole level to read it on that I missed, but I mostly got an innocent sweetness as she has a quasi-relationship with Ivan, who is older, although it stays chaste; makes friends with Svetlana; travels to Paris, then Hungary. The The texture remains the same, centered on the way Selin experiences things–relatively straightforwardly, and charitably–from the early chapters at Harvard through her travels. It read enjoyably and smoothly, although there was no particular source of tension. It meandered, pleasantly enough. I expected the relationship with Ivan to feel more central than it ultimately did.

Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik

A lovely meditation on the shape of life, family, love, violence against (and by) women. Joey, the narrator, is less intriguing than Tess, the girlfriend, and Anne-Marie, the mother, but he’s a perfectly good vehicle for them. I just wish he wouldn’t occasionally directly address the reader (or Tess, or the absent sister, Claire). It’s inconsistent and distracting and I don’t think the book needs it. It has plenty as a first-person reflection that so skillfully spans huge periods of time.

Broken Harbor by Tana French

More of the beautifully written, rich-charactered Irish mysteries. This one felt perhaps a little more contrived than the lsat one– it depended on someone actually being crazy and hearing things, while all along I thought there would be an explanation.

It’s been a hard month, so I read yet another one, because they are diverting…

The Secret Place by Tana French

More genre-bending Irish mystery, this time set in a boarding school, a setting that has always appealed to me. There’s a genuine whodunnit with a locked room component that gives real suspense. But in the end the book has another component too, about adolescent friendships and growing up. The book goes on for a bit after the murder is solved, to explore this theme (to which the murder is linked, too), to the book’s benefit.

 

And now back to more literary things.

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

One of my recent favorites. Kind of like a female Joyce at times, not just in Irishness but in psychology. A book about two people falling in love–we learn their names one at a time, late in the book. There’s almost no explaining and no sentimentality. There’s sex but it’s handled deftly. Learning his story, through an extended bit where we hear his voice, exactly as he speaks it to her, is thrilling. And it manages a happy ending that’s not in the way you’d expect. Once you get in the rhythm of the voice it’s hard to stop.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Reading these stories, it’s kind of hard to believe they weren’t written and originally published as a single collection, they all go together so nicely There are recurring themes and settings and characters, a kind of grit and hardness, sophisticated writing about unsophisticated things (rehab; laundromats). But it never feels mismatched. Not a word out of place. Unforgettable images. So many things happen in these stories, and the world in which they’re set is richly populated.